Information Technology and Military Power

Jon R. Lindsay, Information Technology and Military Power, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, Forthcoming)

Why do military forces with state-of-the-art weaponry still bog down in war? One reason is that precision weapons and digital networks do not determine battlefield outcomes by themselves. Military innovation and performance depend further on what I call information practice, or the ways in which military practitioners actually use their technologies in operational context. The quality of information practice, in turn, depends on an interaction between strategic problems and organizational solutions. As military operations have become more complex over the past century, military personnel have had to struggle with their systems as much as with the enemy.

This book explores the micro-foundations of military power in the information age through a series of detailed historical cases and ethnographic studies. It explains why the U.S. military, despite all its technological advantages, has struggled for so long in unconventional conflicts against weaker adversaries. This same perspective suggests that the United States retains important advantages against competitors that are less prepared to cope with system complexity in wartime. The book also offers practical advice about how organizations can combine the strengths of top-down management and bottom-up adaptation while avoiding administrative insulation and coordination problems.

Military slide for the target that turned out to be the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, published in the NYT

Introduction: Shifting the Fog of War

The same technologies that are supposed to lift the fog of war often shift it right back into the organizations that use them. This book explains the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of military information systems. Major themes are introduced with vignettes from the author’s experience in the U.S. Navy during the Kosovo and Iraq wars. The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in 1999 was the product of uncoordinated information practice in a tightly constrained operational environment; by contrast, the persistence of counterproductive behavior by one special operations unit in 2008 resulted from an insular culture in an ambiguous environment. This chapter summarizes the book's argument about why knowledge-enhancing technologies also produce "information friction" and situates its empirical cases in the book’s conceptual framework.


An image from Joint Vision 2010, an influential doctrinal statement about the promise of the RMA from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1996.

1. The Technology Theory of Victory

Ideas about the military potency of the latest vintage of information technology have reappeared regularly throughout the past century. From the American “electronic battlefield” in the 1970s to Chinese “informatization” in the 2000s, a general set of beliefs that I call "the technology theory of victory" expects digital technology to make war fast and efficient. In practice, advanced militaries have experienced friction and breakdown in costly, ambiguous wars. Critics of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) have emphasized different factors that shape military innovation and effectiveness, described here as sociotechnical complexity, doctrinal congruence, organizational culture, and user innovation. These four critiques offer different perspectives on a single general underlying phenomenon: the increasing complexity of information practice in military affairs.


Overview of basic concepts in the theory of information practice

2. A Framework for Understanding Information Practice

Information practice is the sociotechnical pattern of organizational behavior that coordinates the relationships between internal representations and the external world. Information-processing activity helps to translate the material and social resources of a military organization into battlefield performance. This chapter presents an interdisciplinary synthesis for understanding the relationship between information technology, organizational behavior, and strategic context. It explains how technology mediates organizational knowledge in war and how breakdowns in information systems both create friction and enable innovation. A political economic framework of market and government failure is used to describe four different regimes of information practice—managed, insulated, adaptive, and problematic—that emerge through the interaction of external warfighting problems and internal organizational solutions. The endogenous interaction of problems and solutions tends to increase the overall system complexity over time.


Radar operators at the Bawdsey Chain Home station (photo)

3. Strategic and Organizational Conditions for Success: The Battle of Britain

The 1940 Battle of Britain demonstrates how the computational interaction of people and machines can improve military performance. The interaction of a well-institutionalized solution and a structurally-constrained problem produces what I call managed practice, the pattern most conducive to improving warfighting performance. The Royal Air Force fought with a geographic defensive advantage and decades of prior preparation to produce the radar information system that directed British air operations. The Luftwaffe, by contrast, waged a harder offensive campaign and suffered bureaucratic pathologies. While the British planned to fight the last war, the Germans obligingly gave it to them.


Major Jake Thorn at a Mission Support System terminal (photo: Thorn)

4. User Innovation and System Management: Aviation Mission Planning Software

Throughout the major American air operations from 1991 to 2003, top-down mission planning systems faltered while bottom-up initiatives flourished in a manner reminiscent of Silicon Valley start-up culture. The interaction of an organic organizational solution and an unconstrained warfighting problem results in adaptive practice, which can potentially improve military performance. The emergence of an Air Force software package known as FalconView is an exceptional case of successful user innovation, but it is hardly unique. A major problem for military organizations is the encouragement of user innovation while minimizing its liabilities for interoperability, reliability, and cybersecurity.


Sheikh Mishan al-Jumaili traces his family lineage during a meeting with Coalition Forces (photo: author)

5. Irregular Problems and Biased Solutions: Special Operations in Iraq

This chapter presents an ethnographic study of the counterterrorism targeting processes of a special operations task force in Iraq’s Anbar province in 2007-8. The unit’s ingrained cultural preference for “direct action” (attacking insurgents) over “indirect action” (negotiating with locals) encouraged Navy SEALs to hunt for “bad guys.” The organization’s information technologies enabled them to do so, but in the process elided the complex tribal politics of Anbar. Problematic breakdowns remained hidden in an epistemic infrastructure that was not designed to ask or answer critical questions about its own counterinsurgency performance. The interaction of an institutionalized organizational solution and an unconstrained warfighting problem can be described as insulated practice.


MQ-9 Reaper Crew (photo)

6. Increasing Complexity and Uneven Results: Drone Campaigns

Patterns of information practice tend to change over time because of a dynamic interaction between organizational problems and warfighting solutions. Recent U.S. drone campaigns exemplify the endogenous growth of complexity. The armed Predator emerged as a workaround of military bureaucracy. Unfortunately, ad hoc coordination processes resulted in some tragic errors on the battlefield. In response the Obama administration piled on many layers of oversight to control error rates. The Trump administration attempted to cut through the red tape and inadvertently increased civilian casualty rates. Through cycles of exploitation and reform, the drone counterterrorism system became more complex without providing lasting decisive battlefield advantage.


Lt. Col. Paul Hastert works on FalconView in the back of a transport aircraft (photo: Hastert)

7. Practical Implications of Information Practice

Organizations should try to combine the advantages of managed and adaptive practice while mitigating the risks of problematic and insulated practice, an approach described here as “adaptive management.” User innovation (beneficial hacking) is both a major opportunity and a challenge for military organizations. Information friction can be counterproductive at both the low and high ends of the conflict spectrum, in protracted unconventional warfare and nuclear counterforce targeting. Cybersecurity, meanwhile, is a second order problem of using information practice to exploit and protect information practice itself. Effective military operations, and political policies that avoid war, require practitioners to be sensitive to both what information means and how information works.


LCDR Lindsay participates and observes in the strange local culture of a Special Operations Task Force (photo: author)

Appendix: Methodology

This appendix reveals some of the messy historical scaffolding that was swept away in the main text. In the process it uses the book's theoretical framework to explain the ethnographic methodology that created it. This is possible because science itself is a sort of information practice. The method of abduction in science can be understood as a cycle of intellectual exploitation and reform that moves from theory to conjecture and from experimentation to challenges that prompt a reformulation of theory. My theoretical intuitions about information practice emerged through personal experience in war and engagement with a diverse range of scholarship. The journey was full of unexpected opportunities, contingencies, and difficulties, but the endpoint was a more generalizable and empirically grounded theory.